Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Quiet Month

After a few years of growing a fall garden in Austin, I came to think of the month from late December, around the time of the winter solstice, to late January, around the time of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as the quiet month.  Plant growth slows, few weeds germinate, and garden projects – harvesting, watering, weeding, and raking leaves – seem to sit still and wait for another day.  I used to think that the timing of this quiet month had to do with day length, that the more-distant sun simply didn't shine brightly enough for enough hours to promote plant growth around the first of the year.  But in truth we receive over ten hours of daylight on even the shortest day of the year, and, after seeing the freeze data for our region, I realized that what I call the quiet month is actually the freeze month, the short window of time during which our climate approximates winter.

Quiet in the garden does not translate to quiet in the kitchen.  In fact, January is actually the peak production month for a cool-season garden in Austin.  The lettuces are full size, with the Black Seeded Simpson heads threatening to bolt between freezes.  Large-leafed cooking greens like kale and chard begin to look like small shrubs, while the bok choy and tatsoi rosettes grow denser as their holey outer leaves host an assortment of nutrition-conscious insects.  Broccoli and cauliflower heads reach maturity.  The winter herbs, parsley, cilantro, sorrel, fenugreek, and fennel, are bushy enough to be regularly trimmed for salads, soups, and pesto.  Last weekend I even discovered that I have full-sized carrots growing quietly beneath the mulch, adding another homegrown ingredient to our salads.

I wish that I could say that the quiet is a state of mind, but the quiet of January feels more like the calm before the storm.  Garden projects will wait in these weeks, but only temporarily, because, as early as February, weeds will begin germinating in earnest and the garden greens will respond to longer, warmer days by bolting and flowering.  A few short weeks after that, dormant Bermuda grass will recover from winter freezes as the spring planting window for tomatoes, peppers, and other hot-season plants approaches.  And the spring-planting window, unlike the leisurely, long fall planting window, is as unforgiving as the heat of the impending summer.  This quiet time is actually the time to plan and to prepare and to eat those greens.

Still, despite the fact that every summer I set an intention to get so many garden projects done during the coolest month of the year, I can't help but move more slowly along with the plants.  It took me weeks to finish raking the backyard this year, partly because I started the project then decided that I'd rather wait until the leaves were fully off the trees, and partly because raking was an satisfying task that I found myself saving, the same way that I eat a chocolate bar three squares at a time, saving some of what I like for tomorrow.  First I raked enough leaves to mulch the front-yard garden, next I raked the leaves under the cedar elm and used those leaves to mulch the strip along the side of the yard, and then I raked enough leaves to mulch the backyard garden.

Finally, on a sunny morning after the rains had dropped the last of the leaves off the post oak, I raked the rest of the backyard into a big pile of leaves.  Which reminded me that, before spring-planting time, I planned to use those leaves for mulching the future garden space for tomatoes along the south wall of the house.  Which reminded me that, in order to create that garden space, I needed to remove the roots of the shrubs that once grew there, build retaining walls to level the ground, and amend the soil.  So maybe I took my time raking the leaves because I didn't want to be reminded that time, measured in plant growth, was about to speed up once again.  Instead, for that sunny, cool morning, I sat in the backyard with Benji, enjoying the quiet between freezes, between rain storms, and between growing seasons.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Spoonful of Oil

I come from a long line of overly-responsible workaholics.  What this means is that, if given a salaried job where I don't have to clock in and out as hourly employees do, I will work about sixty hours a week and spend the rest of my time, those few minutes which aren't spent sleeping or in the shower, thinking about what I should be doing at work so that I can finally get caught up and, maybe then, be able to work a forty-hour week.  Caught up, unfortunately, is a state of mind, not a circumstance, and is certainly not a state of mind that my thinking-ahead brain can fathom.

But even during the longest of work weeks, I still ate my greens.  In fact, I perfected what I called the Lazy Woman Salad over the course of many working-until-bedtime evenings.  (Amazingly, until I just typed the last sentence I never realized the injustice of calling the woman who was planning to work until bedtime lazy.  Score one for the psychotherapists.)  The salad was, in it's earliest days and on my longest nights, simply a pile of organic, pre-washed spinach transferred straight from the plastic box to my plate then drizzled with olive oil or dressing.  I didn't add sliced tomatoes, or carrot, or cucumber, so that I wouldn't have to use a cutting board or knife to make it, so that I wouldn't have to wash a cutting board or knife, so that I could get back to work all the more quickly.  Over time, I realized that I could easily dump a can of cut green beans over the salad to add calories, or I could open a can of black olives and toss a few (say, half the can) onto the salad as well.

The problem with drizzling oil or dressing over a pile of spinach leaves is that the leaves on top get all of the oil and the ones on the bottom stay dry and stick to each other in the way that spinach leaves do.  At the time I had rediscovered Mother's Cashew-Tamari Dressing and I wanted every leaf to be coated in the stuff, so I started using a mixing bowl to make my salads, tossing spinach leaves and grated Parmesan in the dressing.  Sometimes I added sprouts straight from their plastic box and sometimes I added green beans or black olives from the can, but I never used a cutting board so always felt that it was just my Lazy Woman Salad, nothing worthy of being shared with Lee, who sometimes eyed my bowlful of greens with curiosity.

In truth, I had discovered salad bliss.  Here's the recipe:  Put a few handfuls greens into a mixing bowl with a handful of sprouts and a half a handful of grated Parmesan cheese.  Pour Cashew-Tamari Dressing (recipe below) onto the greens.  Mix all ingredients with a rubber spatula until every leaf is coated.  Serve in a big bowl and tell all relations that it's just a quick, easy salad that is not worthy of sharing because otherwise they will eat all the grated Parmesan and Cashew-Tamari Dressing in the house.

I kept my secret for a couple of years.  When I made salads for Lee and me, I would dutifully get out the cutting board and pile chopped tomatoes, sliced cucumber, grated carrot, and sliced peppers onto our colorful, proper salads, along with toasted fake-chicken nuggets.  Then we would each pour as much Harriet's Texas Ranch dressing as we wanted onto our nuggets and salads.  Between official salad days, I would make myself Lazy Woman Salads and keep telling myself that I was doing Lee a favor by not sharing for two reasons.  One, this was a lazy salad lacking all the crucial toppings, and two, he should be able to self-determine dressing type and amount, not be subjected to my whims.

But one day Lee insisted that he didn't mind having whatever it was that I was making, even if it was lacking ingredients and already coated in dressing.  So I made us Lazy Woman Salads and took mine to the computer to get some work done.  A few minutes later, he walked into the computer room with an empty salad bowl and a quizzical, you've been holding out on me look on his face.  I would've explained but I was too busy licking the last of the dressing out of my salad bowl.

Now that the secret is out, all of our salads, no matter the complexity or number of ingredients, and no matter whether the cutting board is busted out or not, are made in a bowl and coated in dressing prior to being served.  And we're eating a lot of salads in these, the quiet days of winter in the weeks before the lettuces bolt.  I'm aware of every warm spell on the horizon, and now that Lee is educated in the art of what he calls salad lubrication, we're going through a lot of salad dressing.  So I decided it was about time that I try to make my own cashew-tamari dressing.  Because the real secret of salad bliss is this: be generous with the high-quality oil.  Just as a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, a spoonful of oil helps the salad go down.  In such a delightful way.

Cashew-Tamari Dressing
an attempt to recreate Mother's Cashew-Tamari Dressing

The main ingredient in Mother's Cashew-Tamari Dressing is canola oil, a neutral-flavored oil that is generally considered to be healthier than soy oil or vegetable oil blends.  I like canola oil and cooked with it for many years, but have learned that most canola plants, like most corn and soy plants, that are grown in North America are grown from genetically-modified, Round-Up-Ready seeds, which I would rather not support.  I am now using safflower oil when I need a neutral-flavored oil or one that can withstand high-heat frying. 

Napa Valley Naturals makes a safflower oil that is certified organic, expeller-pressed, and high in oleic oils (monounsaturated fats).  High-oleic safflower oils, derived from the seed of the Carthamus tinctorius plant, a relative of the sunflower, are high in vitamin E and are generally considered to be heart healthy and nutritionally similar to olive oil.  Some sources warn, though, that seed oils such as safflower should be eaten in moderation because they may be providing too much omega-6 fatty acid to our diet.

Mother's Cashew-Tamari Dressing also contains soy lecithin, which functions as an emulsifier, or helps the watery parts of the dressing (the vinegar and tamari) stay mixed within the oil of the dressing.  In homemade dressing, the lecithin is not needed.   If the dressing separates in the refrigerator, simply stir or shake to recombine.  In my experience, this dressing is gone long before separation is much of an issue.

1/2 cup cashews
2 teaspoons balsalmic vinegar
3 tablespoons tamari
1 cup safflower oil

Measure all the ingredients into a food processor or blender.  Pulse a few times to combine.  Process 30 seconds to a minute longer, until the cashews are chopped as finely as desired.  Pour into a glass jar and store in the refrigerator.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Winter Harvest

My front yard garden is full of greens – yellow green lettuces growing tall next to compact vases of red-leafed lettuces, purple beet greens beside blue-green, bumpy and erect kale leaves, red-, pink-, and yellow-stemmed chards intermixed, tight rosettes of tat soi turning to crowded vases of bok choy, and dark green arrow leaves, with pink stems, on the spinach, sharing a row with the yellow-green arrow leaves of sorrel.  Visually, it's an impressive mix, yet when someone asks what I am growing in my new garden this winter, I say, oh, just some greens.

Just some greens.  Just some greens because they are so easy to grow that they almost grow themselves.  Just some greens because there are so many of them.  Just some greens because they are ongoing, a process rather than a product.  Greens don't ripen like tomatoes or peppers, or swell to full-size like carrots and fennel.  Instead, greens harvest is ongoing from the time the seedlings put on their first true sets of leaves until the days before they bolt and send up flowering stalks.  At this point in the year, greens have taken over the kitchen sink, all my mixing bowls, the big shelf of the refrigerator, and most of my "free" time.  I don't mean to complain, though washing greens does get repetitive, but to say that, with greens there is no moment of accomplishment, no specific harvest time.

Which is why I have been eagerly watching the broccoli and cauliflower patch in the backyard.  In early December each plant held, in secret under its protective center leaves, a tiny head of flowering buds.  Over the next few weeks, the tiny heads emerged and grew steadily, along with my anticipation of their harvest day, into full-sized heads.

In retrospect, I can say that three of the four broccoli heads and both of the cauliflower heads reached maturity in the second week in January.  Yet I didn't harvest my first broccoli and cauliflower until the third week of the month.  I wanted to wait to harvest until I was sure that the broccoli and cauliflower had reached their largest size.  The problem with waiting until I am sure is that the only way I can know, without a doubt, that a broccoli or cauliflower head has stopped growing is that it begins to loosen up in anticipation of flowering.  Once the heads loosen up, they are for sure done growing, but they are also officially past their prime.  Oops!

Green Magic Broccoli

Snow Crown Cauliflower

I steamed the fresh broccoli and cauliflower then tossed the florets in mustard butter and chopped parsley.  Even though each of the heads was picked about a week after its ideal harvest day, the steamed broccoli and cauliflower tasted fresh out of the garden, and harvesting both gave me that moment of accomplishment that I've been craving through this ongoing greens season.

Mustard Butter
from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

The recipe calls for 1/4 pound of butter, which is 1/2 cup.  When I made it, I wasn't paying close attention and used 1/4 cup butter, so my resulting butter was as much stuff as butter.  I thought it was delicious over the steamed broccoli and cauliflower (and I still had leftovers), so I would probably repeat my mistake in the future.

1/4 pound (1/2 cup) butter
1 garlic clove, pressed or finely minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, or to taste
1 large shallot, minced or 2 tablespoons minced onion
2 tablespoons minced parsley
sea salt
fresh ground black pepper

Soften the butter just enough so that it is stir-able but not melted.  Stir the remaining ingredients into the butter.  Serve over steamed broccoli and/or cauliflower.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sweet Sweat

A couple of weeks ago I noticed that my armpit odors were smelling exceptionally sweet, like brown-sugar cookies.  I was very privately pleased with my new smell, thinking that brown-sugar b.o. could only be a sign of good health, but, as the smell lingered, I began to worry that what I was perceiving as brown sugar, the world at large was perceiving as a bad case of b.o.  I tried the solutions that normally work – I shaved my armpits, washed with antibacterial soap, and applied rubbing alcohol.  But the sweet scent lingered, so I went to Lee and asked for his opinion.  Yep, he confirmed, you are smelling exceptionally sweet but that's definitely b.o.  I spent the rest of the week alternately enjoying the smell and worrying that I was turning into one of the parents in the South Park episode where they move to San Francisco and enjoy the smell of their own farts.

A day or two after I asked Lee to assess my smells, he mentioned that he was also smelling of brown sugar, and I wondered then if our diet had something to do with it.  Maybe it's all the greens we are eating, I told him.  But the smell faded and I forgot about it until today, when I decided it was time to research fenugreek and write about the delicious fenugreek and potatoes dish that I made a couple of weeks ago.  It turns out that fenugreek seeds, taken in quantity, have a side effect known as a "maple syrup odor."  Aha!  No wonder we smelled like sugar cookies that week.  We now have anecdotal evidence that eating a bunch of fresh fenugreek leaves from the garden also produces the maple syrup odor.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is a herb in the pea family that was originally cultivated in northern Africa and the countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean.  Fenugreek, Latin for "Greek hay," is related to clover and vetch, pea-family legumes that are also cultivated as cover crops, to improve the soil, and as livestock feed.  Now most of the world's fenugreek is grown in India, where it is known as methi, in the state of Rajasthan, a large, arid state bordering Pakistan.  Fenugreek is grown for its young leaves, which are cooked with potatoes, in dals, or into breads, and for its seeds, which are toasted and ground into a spice to flavor curries or sweats such as halva.  Commercially, fenugreek is used to make yellow dye and to make artificial maple syrup flavoring.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) in the garden

Fenugreek seeds, which are rich in protein, oils, and vitamins A, B1, and C, have an amazing number of medicinal uses.  Traditionally, fenugreek was given to women for menstrual cramps, to induce labor, or for postpartum recovery, because fenugreek promotes and increases milk flow and acts as a uterine stimulant.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, fenugreek is used for warming and toning the kidneys and alleviating joint pain.  Modern medical studies have shown that, when taken regularly, fenugreek can decrease blood sugar and lower "bad" cholesterol levels.  Fenugreek is also used as an anti-inflammatory, a fever reducer, an expectorant, a breath freshener, and a digestive aid.

Here's where I can't help but wondering, as I always do when I see a commercial for one of those pharmaceuticals whose side effects may include paralysis, blindness, sudden drops in blood sugar or blood pressure, increased susceptibility to certain cancers or fungal infections, etc, why modern medicine does not take more seriously the medicines of nature, like fenugreek, whose side effects may include smelling like a fresh-baked maple cookie.

I discovered fenugreek seeds along with Indian food, and I learned out that I loved the flavor of rice or millet cooked with fenugreek seeds.  My fondness for fenugreek grew when I found ready-to-eat Indian dishes that contained fenugreek, such as MTR's Alu Methi.  But I have to confess that, despite my botanical training, gardening experience, and the fact that I had eaten fenugreek leaves in those ready-to-eat methi dishes that I liked so much, I had no idea that fenugreek could be eaten as a leafy herb, nor did I have any concept of there being a fenugreek plant, until I happened upon the seed packet for Botanical Interests Fenugreek, a cool-season annual herb.  Because of which I had a real moment there in the seed section when I realized that methi dishes were not spiced with methi (fenugreek) seeds, but were composed in part of methi leaves, which I could grow in my garden next to the other cool-season herbs like fennel, cilantro, and parsley.

So I planted half a row of fenugreek next to the half a row of fennel and have watched with curiosity as the gangly, clover-looking plants have grown into their space.  In December, two months after planting, which is the age suggested for harvesting the leaves, my precocious plants were already flowering and producing baby seed pods.  Perhaps they were misled by the day length in Austin, or perhaps they were simply confused, as we all are, by the highly variable but generally mild season that we call fall here.  In any case, I harvested a handful of plants, removed the stems, flowers, and baby seed pods, washed them, and found a recipe for Methi Aloo, the fenugreek and potato dish that I already knew and loved.  Homemade Methi Aloo was nothing like the ready-to-eat stuff from the packet but was crispy, flavorful, and scored a this is my new favorite thing complement from Lee.  Plus, as a bonus, we smelled like imitation maple syrup for the rest of the week.

Methi Aloo
Adapted from Padma's Kitchen.

I accidentally added caraway seeds to this dish, thinking they were cumin seeds, but the end result was delicious anyway, so I have also added them to the recipe.  I didn't have urad dal on hand, so I omitted that and the recipe worked fine, but ural dal can be easily found at an Indian grocery store along with the curry leaves and fenugreek, which is seasonally available. 

2 cups (packed) fenugreek (methi) leaves
2 lbs small, organic, red-skinned potatoes
2 tablespoons safflower or canola oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
1 teaspoon urad dal
5-6 curry leaves
sea salt
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne powder
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

Trim the stems from the fenugreek and wash thoroughly.  Wash the potatoes and chop into even-sized cubes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat.  Add the cumin seeds, caraway seeds (optional), urad dal, and curry leaves and fry for about a minute, or until the cumin seeds brown and become aromatic.  Add the chopped potatoes and fry, stirring frequently, for about 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through.

Remove the curry leaves.  Add sea salt to taste, then add the red chili, cayenne, and turmeric powders.  Stir to coat the potatoes with the spices.  Add the fenugreek leaves, stir to combine, and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes.  Serve hot on as a side dish or with Indian breads.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winter Pesto

Somewhere in my freezer, buried under vanilla ice cream, half a bag of peas, and a loaf and a half of bread are a couple of ice cube trays full of basil pesto that I froze last summer, at the height of basil production, when the only way I could keep up was to make a triple batch of pesto.  Given that my freezer is a crappy, frost-free, top-of-the-refrigerator type, the sort of freezer that is meant to temporarily store frozen foods between the store and the microwave, I have yet to work up the courage to try the frozen basil pesto.  The summer before last I filled those same ice cube trays with tap water, to make ice cubes, which I forgot about during the cool season.  Several months later, the ice cube trays were empty and the water had long evaporated away, leaving only a white, crusty mineral ring around each well, the signature of Austin's alkaline water, and a bit of debris at the bottom of each well, the concentrated essence of freezer burn.  So, despite the fact that I double-wrapped and sealed the ice cube trays when I filled them with pesto, I hate the idea of adding concentrated essence of freezer burn to any of my meals along with the intended shot of summer basil essence.

Pesto, a leafy herb concentrate of crushed leaves spiced with garlic, thickened with nuts, and suspended in olive oil, is also a concentrate of the season.  Basil pesto, the concentrate of summer, is the most common pesto and the one that is synonymous with pesto.  Basil, like summer in Austin, is excessive, making leaves faster than I can harvest them, and hot, in the spicy sense of the word, and intense.  I look forward to basil pesto season, to the time of year when I have so much fresh basil that I can eat it in tomato salads, cook it with fresh eggplant and tomatoes, and eat basil pesto on pasta and pizza, and on my toast and in my sandwiches. 

But just as summer is not the only growing season in Austin, basil pesto is not the only pesto.  The cool season, in terms of leafy herbs, is the season of cilantro and parsley.  While parsley, ever so consistent and careful in its ways, grows slowly through the fall and winter, cilantro quickly produces many leaves during the mild, sunny weeks of November and December.  The cilantro plants that I seeded in mid October are now bushy rosettes.  In the quiet of January they still look like young plants, but I know that, when the warmer temperatures and longer days of early spring arrive, my cute, bushy cilantro plants will quickly mature, bolt, and flower.  So January, our most freezing-est, most winter-like month of the year, is the time to harvest lots of cilantro.

Cilantro pesto, like the mild cool season during which it thrives, is milder than basil pesto, with a flavor that is spicy but also earthy and savory.  As the concentrate of winter in our mild climate, cilantro pesto is the vibrant green of the height of the greens season.  I eat cilantro pesto on pasta, on pizza, and in sandwiches, just as I do with basil pesto.  But this year I am trying to loosen my allegiance to basil, the belle of the summer, and to regard cilantro pesto as a worthy pesto unto itself and not simply as a substitute for the "real" pesto of summer.  After all, I can make cilantro pesto fresh from the garden on the coldest day of the year, a feat that is far outside the skill set of chill-sensitive basil.  And with fresh pesto in January, I can keep on ignoring that pesto in the freezer.

Cilantro Pesto

3 cloves garlic, peeled
3 cups (packed) cilantro, stems removed
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup parmesan or romano cheese, grated
1/2 cup olive oil
sea salt
fresh cracked black pepper

Place the garlic cloves in a food processor and mince.  Fill the food processor with cilantro leaves and process until all of the leaves are minced.  Put the remaining cilantro leaves into the food processor and mince.  Add the walnuts and process until the nuts are ground into the mixture.  Add the cheese and pulse to combine.  Scrape down the sides of the food processor bowl and measure the olive oil.  While the food processor is running, pour the olive oil into the mixture.  Allow the processor to run for a minute or two longer.  Add sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste.

Makes about a cup, which will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.  Serve as a pasta sauce, a pizza topping, or a sandwich spread.  Add to winter soups, omelets, or risotto.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

An Odd-Numbered Year

I'm not much for superstitions.  Some of the coolest cats – literally, cats, as in meow –  I've known were black cats.  I'll walk under a ladder if it's in my way, spill salt on the floor and think only of the cleanup, or put on my hoodie, because I hate being cold, if I get goosebumps.  I even like the number thirteen and wouldn't mind living on the thirteenth floor or on 13th street, which, here in east Austin, is generally nicer than either 12th or 14th.  Apparently crack dealers are superstitious.

At some point, though, my like for the number thirteen, and my preference for odd numbers, especially odd, prime numbers, has turned into something of a superstition.  In my first kitchen job, I learned that it is good presentation to serve an odd number of food items on a plate, because odd numbers of things look more appealing.  To this day if I am putting olives onto my salad, I count out an odd number of them, despite the fact that I don't eat just three or five olives, which clearly look better than four or six olives, but instead tend to eat eleven or thirteen olives, which amount to just as large of a pile as ten or twelve olives would.  Yet I still debate, as I'm counting out my odd number of olives, whether to count the ones that I eat straight out of the can, the ones that never make it onto the salad, in the olive total or not.

For the same irrational reasons, I like odd-numbered years.  I feel that my life has more forward momentum in odd-numbered years, especially during the last half of an odd-numbered year, when my age is odd-numbered as well.  It was in the last half of an odd-numbered year that I signed up for a community garden plot and planted my first fall garden, that I took my first fiction-writing class, that I got together with Lee, and, on the last day of that same odd-numbered year, that I bought this house.  Now here I am at the outset of an odd- and prime-numbered year, 2011, during which I am going to turn 37, another odd, prime number that happened to be my favorite number growing up. 

What a lot of pressure this year is turning out to be.

To start the year off right, I decided to make the traditional New Year's meal of black-eyed peas with southern-style greens.  I'd never cooked black-eyed peas before and in fact had a bad association with them on account of a bad experience I had eating some black-eyed peas that had spoiled at a restaurant.  So my motivation to make the traditional New Year's meal was not to cook black-eyed peas, or for the luck, though I figure that these things never hurt.  Instead, I wanted an excuse to make cornbread and I was really looking for a reason to harvest and cook some collard greens from my two happy plants in the backyard.

So I cut the bottom leaves from my collard greens in the backyard, and I harvested some Lacinato kale plants from the crowded row in the front yard, and set about making a New Year's dinner that my dad said sounded like something out of Hee Haw:  slow-cooked black-eyed peas with creamed greens and cornbread.  Here's to good luck and lots of forward momentum in 2011.

Vegetarian Black-Eyed Peas
Adapted from the Fat-Free Vegan Kitchen

Apologies to the source recipe, which was fat-free and vegan, because the first step I took was to melt a quarter cup of butter into my soup pot.  I like the flavor and heartiness that butter adds to a winter soup or pot of beans, but what I really like are the flavors of onion and garlic.  I have found that surest way to infuse onion and garlic goodness into a dish is to sauté or fry the onion in some kind of fat for about five minutes then to add the garlic and continue frying for a minute or two longer.  Olive oil (two to four tablespoons) can easily be substituted for butter to keep the dish vegan, without losing any of the onion-family flavors.

I used fresh black-eyed peas, which can easily be found in the produce section of grocery stores around the first of the year.  I cooked the beans in vegetable stock (near-boiling water mixed with Better Than Bouillon stock, per instructions) instead of water to add flavor to the beans.

4 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, chopped

12 ounces fresh black-eyed peas, rinsed
4 cups vegetable stock
2 bay leaves

15 oz can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon hot sauce
fresh cracked black pepper

Melt the butter in a large soup pot over medium heat, then add the onion and fry for about five minutes, or until the onion becomes clear and starts to brown at the edges.  Add the garlic and cook for a minute longer, stirring continuously to prevent the garlic from sticking.  Add the bell pepper and cook, stirring frequently, for one to two minutes longer.

Add the rinsed black-eyed peas, the stock, and bay leaves to the pot, stir well, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover, and allow to simmer for about two hours.  Stir the beans occasionally and adjust the heat as needed so that the lid on the soup pot is jangling intermittently from the release of steam.

After two hours of cooking, remove the bay leaves then add the remaining ingredients except for the black pepper.  Stir well and allow to cook for about an hour longer, stirring occasionally.  For soupier beans, leave the lid on the soup pot, or, for thicker beans, remove the lid for the last half hour of simmering.  At the end of cooking, add black pepper to taste.

Serve hot over rice or with cornbread.

Jalapeño Cornbread
Adapted from Diana's Kitchen

This is the best cornbread recipe that I have found.  The cornbread is moist, savory, and filled with corn kernels, minced jalapeño peppers, and grated cheese.  I added sliced green onions and used melted butter instead of vegetable oil, but otherwise left the recipe alone.

Well, I almost left it alone.  The original recipe called for one cup of creamed corn, but the only creamed corn I could find contained sugar and "modified food starch" and wasn't organic.  I substituted organic, non-GMO corn by filling a one-cup measuring cup with corn kernels then pouring buttermilk into the cup of corn until buttermilk reached the top of the measuring cup.

1 cup organic yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup organic sweet corn
1 cup buttermilk + enough to fill cup of sweet corn (see note above)
1/4 cup butter, melted
3 large jalapeño peppers, minced
1 bunch green onions (scallions), sliced
4 oz grated cheddar, monterey jack, or colby cheese

Preheat oven to 350˚ F.  Grease a 9-inch square baking pan.

In a small bowl, combine the cornmeal, baking powder, and salt.  In a larger mixing bowl, beat the eggs then stir in the remaining ingredients.  Stir in the dry ingredients until just uniformly mixed.  Transfer the mixture into the baking pan.  Bake for 55 to 65 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Creamed Greens
Adapted from Nourished Kitchen

2 pounds thick-leafed greens (collards and/or kale)
1 large onion, quartered and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup cream
sea salt

Thoroughly wash the greens and remove the stems and thick central veins from the leaves.  Chop the leaves into large pieces.

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and fry in the butter, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes, or until the onion softens and begins to brown at the edges.

Add chopped greens to the skillet and stir to combine.  Place a lid over the pan to wilt the greens.  Depending on the size of the pan, wilt the greens in batches until all the greens are wilted.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the cream.  Simmer for five to ten minutes, or until the cream is mostly reduced.

Season with sea salt to taste and serve hot.